In many homes and restaurants across the United States, the essence of Indian cooking can be expressed with one word: curry. The word calls to mind a dish of meat, eggs, or rice served with a spicy, ocher gravy or cream sauce flavored with “curry powder”, a condiment that you can buy in the spice section of any supermarket. It’s a one-of-a-kind flavor, and Americans seem to love it or hate it.
The word “curry” was coined by sixteenth-century British explorers to describe what they perceived as the ultimate Indian traditional spice. The origin of the word may be kari, a southern Indian word meaning sauce, or karhi, which refers to a popular, spicy, yogurt-based sauce often seasoned with the fresh leaves of curry leaf (Murraya koenigii). (This small tropical tree related to citrus should not be confused with curry plant, Helichrysum italicum, a small, white-leaved tender perennial of the daisy family.)
The notion of a single, all-purpose curry powder is also of British origin. India, by contrast, boasts an endless number of regional spice blends, or masalas, usually prepared daily from ingredients that grow locally or are otherwise readily available. These ingredients vary widely, depending partly on local climate (which changes dramatically from north to south) and even more on the intended use of the blend.
One important distinction between American curry powder and an Indian spice blend is that the latter is freshly ground from whole spices. Spices lose flavor quickly after grinding as their oils evaporate, and the light and warmth in both the supermarket and the kitchen contribute to their decline, which may already have progressed significantly during shipment and storage. Another important distinction is that the array of ingredients in an Indian spice blend is adjusted to match the recipe in which it is being used.
Garam masalas are Indian spice blends that are believed to warm the body. (American curry powder most closely resembles this category of masala.) A garam masala may contain as few as three or as many as a dozen of the warming spices, which include bay leaf, black mustard seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, peppercorns (black, green, or white), dried chilis, ginger, mace, and nutmeg. These blends often are added to a dish during the last stage of cooking to maintain their aroma.
The use of spices in India varies so greatly that generalizations are difficult; even the best Indian cooks argue over the proper spicing of a given dish. Spicing is an art, and the use of a particular spice may depend on the way the spice is prepared, the point in the cooking process at which it is added, the temperature at which the food is cooked, the texture or color it gives to the sauce, the season, the nature of the accompanying spices and other ingredients, the region of India in which the food is prepared, and the state of health of the person who is to eat it. Spice seeds may be used whole, crushed, freshly ground, toasted whole, or toasted and ground, depending on the application; often a spice will be used in two different forms in the same dish, each added at a different stage of cooking.
Properly selected, prepared, and cooked, the spices in an Indian blend will do just that: blend with each other and the food. No individual spice should single itself out in the flavor of a dish, and the spices should not taste “raw”. For this reason, sharp or bitter spices such as turmeric are not usually used in sweets or in dishes that require little cooking, and the more powerful spices are not used with delicately flavored dishes such as fish or vegetables.
Ingredients commonly used to enhance all kinds of masalas in various regions are coconut, ajowan (Trachyspermum ammi) seeds (related to caraway but tasting of oregano and pepper), mango powder, dried pomegranate seeds, saffron threads, fennel seeds, turmeric, fenugreek seeds, split urad dal (a light-colored relative of mung bean) or yellow split peas, fresh curry leaf, nigella seeds, asafetida, and sesame seeds. In the hotter climate of southern India, garam masalas and other blends often are made fiercely spicy with the addition of ground fresh chilis, gingerroot, and onion to induce perspiration and thus cool the body by evaporation. Masalas often are ground with water in the south, and the inclusion of fresh chilis, coconut, and other ingredients makes these wet rather than dry blends.
The masala recipes below originally appeared in Lord Krishna’s Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Yamuna Devi, and are reprinted by permission of Bala Books, PO Box 311, Old Westbury, NY 11568. The spice combinations and quantities are starting points from which you may concoct your own favorite blends for your own favorite dishes. Availability of ingredients may affect your choices, but taste preferences probably will play the most important role. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
David Merrill is managing editor of The Herb Companion and a great lover of spicy foods.